Posts Tagged ‘Japanese’
It took me a long time to try Ramen Takumi. I lived off of ramen in college. You know the plastic wrapped square of noodles with the little seasoning packet. It costs about 5 cents and while filling isn’t exactly a pillar of culinary excellence. Or so I thought until Ramen Takumi changed my mind. Ramen Takumi translates to artisan ramen, and the name delivers on its promise.
Every time I walked by Ramen Takumi, I couldn’t help but wonder how it was a restaurant could be dedicated to ramen. Day-by-day my curiosity slowly wore me down. I had to taste these noodles for myself. When I finally walked through their door, everything I thought I knew about ramen was blown away. After this first trip I was hooked and I had no choice but to throw the place into the regular lunch rotation.
From almost any seat you can see into the open kitchen where giant pots boil and simmer away with broths for the various dishes. When sitting at the bar you can see the cook setting timers and dropping baskets of noodle into boiling water as he handles slices of meat on the grill.
Ramen Takumi offers up 11 varieties of its namesake dish with flavors including curry, miso, and sweet soy sauce. Served with a ladle like spoon and a pair of chopsticks, each dish has its own flavor and mix of ingredients. Unlike the bowls of ramen I knew before, Ramen Takumi’s come full of veggies, meats, and egg. The curry ramen, with scallion, chicken, bamboo shoots, and ginger pickles, packs a great spicy punch. The miso ramen is completed by slices of pork, scallion, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, and corn, and has fantastically savory flavor. Every heaping bowl is a delicious treat that satiates without leveling me in a food coma for afternoon class.
Finally, in addition to the ramen, the mochi ice cream is a must try.
90 University Pl
(between 11th St & 12th St)
New York, NY 10003
The Melodramatic Prologue
It was December 2010. In the biting chill of winter. The piercing wind whipped through the man-made canyons that are the streets of Manhattan. Two adventures set out on a culinary quest. Months before Meg had eaten at a Japanese bar that she thought I would love. It reminded her of Village Yokocho. She wasn’t exactly sure where it was. Between 6 and 7 Ave. On 51st Street. Maybe 50th. Definitely in the 50s. What was it called though…? She wasn’t sure, but there was a boring bar a couple doors down and there were stairs in the restaurant that bring you down to the seating area. Against my better judgment, I became the second adventurer on this foolhardy adventure.
We started on our way, walked the five avenues over and four blocks down, the winter air challenging us to turn back at every step. Once we got to 50th street, we walked its length west from 6th Ave to 7th Ave. The mysterious restaurant did not reveal herself. Meg assured me that it must be on the next block. So we walked 51st going West from 7th Ave to 6th Ave . The mysterious restaurant still did not reveal herself. “I’m sure it’s right near here, it must just be the next block up.” 52nd Street from 6th Ave back to 7th Ave. “OK, really, it’s right near here, I’ll know it when I see it.” 53rd Street from 7th Ave to….. We made, snaking between 6th and 7th Avenues, it all the way up to 59th Street, where, frozen and defeated, we gave in and turned back to eat at Joe’s Shanghai midtown location on 56th.
But like all good tales, this one comes with a happy ending. A few weeks ago, Meg tracked down the location of this mystery restaurant. It’s on 49th, just on block South from where we started our Northward hunt! But the meal we finally enjoyed this weekend made the earlier chilly trek worth the pain.
Finding ourselves in Times Square, we stopped by the mystery restaurant, which we learned is actually an izakaya, or Japanese pub, called Sake Bar Hagi. We had to pass an hour waiting for a table, so we passed the time at the bar of Pasta Lovers, a few doors down. It was early evening, around 6:30, which made us a little surprised to find a huge crowd at Saki Bar Hagi. But, given the Midtown location, Hagi seems to draw a large after-work crowd. (As an aside, please ignore all of the great things I say about this place, avoid it like the plague, so that next time I go there it won’t be so crowded!)
The sign above the outside door simply reads: Sake Bar. Once past the first door, there’s a narrow staircase leading down to another door to the bar and seating area. I felt like I’d stepped out of New York and into an Osakan sports bar. The actual bar is medium-sized, with most of the warmly lit room dedicated to long wooden tables, with smaller tables on the outskirts. From pretty much wherever you sit you have a view of a one of the many flatscreen TVs on the wall and get a view of one of the many signs with the daily specials.
The menu and drink list were a little overwhelming at first. Laminated page upon page of bright text and pictures of unending deliciousness. In the end, with the help of an unfiltered sake, we narrowed our choices to a seaweed salad, wasabi octopus with cream cheese (from the special menu), the octopus balls, a beef skewer, wasabi pork dumplings, rice and salmon, and the spaghetti with flying fish roe.
I’m not really sure what they did to this seaweed salad, but it was hands-down the best I’ve ever had and it was Meg’s favorite dish of the night. It was visually beautiful, with the dark black seaweed punctuated by little bits of green and red. The flavor was sly and ephemeral with little bits of salt, light acid, bright onion?, garlic?, and lemon? And the crunchy texture was great. If I had it to try again I might still have to much fun eating it to really focus on all of the flavors going on.
Wasabi Octopus with Cream Cheese
What is wasabi octopus with cream cheese? I had no idea my self when I order it off the chalk-written specials menu next to our table. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was definitely surprised when it got to the table. There were maybe a half-dozen crackers on the plate with a small pile of what could pass for a dip in the Midwest sprinkled with something green (minced green onion I think). After putting some of the “dip” on a cracker and biting in, I found the octopus hiding in 1/2 inch to 1/4 inch pieces in the mixture. It was one of the more subtle uses of wasabi I’ve tasted–it was there adding flavor, but the burn was completely mellowed by the cream cheese. My mouth got a barrage of flavors with each bite. The cream cheese seemed to be mixed with something–it was much less thick than I expected it to be. Honestly, given the texture, I’m not sure how it held it held together in a little mound rather then spreading all over the plate. The flavors were bright and the cream cheese made the dish comforting as any good bar (izakaya) food should be.
On the menu, there were two options for the octopus balls: pan fried and deep fried. I really wanted to try the octopus balls – in part to compare them to the ones I know and love and Village Yokocho, and since Village Yokocho pan fries, I had to go that route. The first difference between the balls at Hagi is they are fewer but larger. On biting in, the difference continued. The Hagi balls are bready on the inside, a very moist bread, but still a bread texture. In contrast, Village Yokocho’s balls are slightly doughy. The size of the bits of octopus encased in the little bread balls was also different. At Hagi you could feel the chunks of octopus; at maybe an inch to an inch and a half you had to give a couple good chews before swallowing. At Village Yokocho, the octopus comes more as bits than chunks and require no more chewing then doughy balls they’re in.
My verdict on the winner for octopus balls is still out. But never fear. I’ll take one for the team and eat as many as it takes until this problem is resolved.
The skewer was simple and great. It was fatty (maybe a little grisly) cut of beef with a sauce coating of some kind. With each bite the delicious fatty bits melted in my mouth.
Wasabi Pork Dumplings
These bad boys packed a tasty wasabi fueled punch. Again, I was interested to see how Hagi stacked up on a known favorite from Village Yokocho. As with the octopus balls, size of the protein was bigger. Hagi’s pork had a very coarse grind, where as at Village Yokocho the grind is finer. Again, the stack-up here is tough call. The only thing I can think to do is to take a day and head to each with Fayaz and implement a proper comparison. (Too spicy for Meg’s taste.)
The rice ball really wasn’t much of a ball at all, but more of a rice triangle with a small dent in the middle filled with Salmon. This dish was probably my least favorite of everything ordered. All-in-all it was just fairly bland. A rice triangle, with a crispy outside, chewy inside, and some salmon flavor. Still, if I’m throwing back the beers at Hagi while watching a game on the flat screen, I could see where this simple, filling rice dish might have it’s place.
Spaghetti with Flying Fish Roe
Meg had sampled this dish at the encouragement of a friend the first time she came to Hagi and was determined to try it again. It takes a lot for a dish to make me think to myself, “WTF is going on here?!” and this plate of spaghetti definitely made me do that in a very good way. I liked, but didn’t love this dish. Still it was exciting to try something so different. The base of the sauce on the spaghetti seemed to be mayonnaise or cream based–maybe a little to much mayo for my taste. The fish roe and a good level of saltiness and some interesting texture. There were some other flavors at play but, like so much of what I tried, I had trouble picking them out of the shuffle.
The food arrived at Hagi in a nice ordered progression with never more then two dishes on the table and never more than a few minutes with nothing on the table. In contrast, at Village Yokocho the food either seems to arrive all at once or in random clumps. But Hagi hasn’t replaced Village Yokocho as my go to izakaya. For once thing, it’s a bit more expensive, though only maybe by $1-$2 a dish. For another, Village Yokocho will just always have a special little place in my heart (and a large piece of neighboring real estate in my stomach). Still, I can’t wait to get back to Hagi and tear through some new menu items!
Yes, even food bloggers can live under a proverbial rock. This week when I went out to lunch with Stu to a ramen place near school. No, this isn’t the stuff I’ve live on off and on my whole life–a more detailed post of the ramen is coming when I get in a few more visits. On the latest trip, after slurping down our bowls of deliciousness, Stu suggested something that I haven’t had before: mochi ice cream.
Now I would say that over the last 28 years I’ve developed some familiarity with ice cream, but I had no idea about this Mochi thing. I love Japanese food and I’m not sure how I missed this one. Well, it turns out that Mochi is, basically, rice ground into a paste that can be formed into shapes.
When it comes to mochi ice cream, the mochi is wrapped around an ice cream flavor of your choosing and put into a deep freeze. As you hold it the outer layer of mochi softens, and by the third or fourth (and final) bite the ice cream itself starts to melt. The mochi adds a little texture and lets you pick-up the ice cream like an awesome Asian ice cream sandwich. If I liked it this much now, I can’t wait to take some more of these down when summer finally comes around.
The words, ‘Japanese food’ probably conjure up the thought of sushi. But at Village Yokocho, in Astor Place, a vast assortment of Japanese food is served with only minimal attention to sushi. The restaurant is in the izakaya (Japanese pub) style, with lots of small dishes—think Japanese tapas—that go fantastically well with beer. The tables are tightly packed in two windowless rooms where it feels like dusk no matter what hour. Though loud at times, the space manages to avoid feeling claustrophobic.
The sheer number of menu options can be a little overwhelming at first and pre-dining research is hampered by Village Yokocho’s Ted Kazinsky approach to technology—the restaurant does not have a website or online menu. But, there is a huge amount of great food to choose from, so spend a little time in the beginning getting familiar with the large, various menu.
Having eaten at Village Yokocho more times than any other restaurant in New York City, I have developed a little list of go-to menu items. At the top of the list, octopus balls (takoyaki) are a must. From their roots in Osaka, the bready balls are about the size of a doughnut hole, consisting of soft dough encasing a couple pieces of octopus, then fried and dusted with bonito flakes. Served hot, the bonito flakes on top of the balls move and wave in the steam, making the dish not only an amazing savory concoction, but visually interesting as well. While this dish might sound overly adventurous to some, I can safely say it’s tame enough to satisfy the conservative Midwestern eaters that I’ve tried them on.
The wasabi pork dumplings are another simple treat. Though be warned, the wasabi dominates the dumplings and packs a punch that might be too much for the faint of heart. Finally, the chicken, beef, and quail egg skewers bring a great grilled flavor that meshes well with any dish on the menu.
Even more than new flavors, Village Yokocho offers a chance to try new textures in food. With cheap prices for almost everything on the menu, each trip offers an opportunity to be adventurous. I highly recommend bringing a large party of adventurous eaters to maximize the variety of dishes to try.
Not all dishes are simple to enjoy; some may be reserved for more rarefied tastes. For starters, take the tuna sashimi and yam paste. Though the tuna is along the lines of what you would find in a regular sushi meal, the yam paste has a sticky, slimy texture unlike anything I’ve ever eaten. It was worth a try, though I’ll not likely order it again.
On my last visit I tried a spicy bean paste pork and tofu stew. While not scorching enough to be inedible, it still had a strong spicy flavor. Moreover, the fresh flavors of the vegetables were able to shine through the heat. Also, the dish was a variety of textures, including crisp mushrooms, soft potatoes, and fresh, snapping veggies.
The Village Yokocho has one other hidden surprise: through a discreet door in the main dining room is the speakeasy bar Angel’s Share, where highly skilled mixologists prepare drinks from a seasonal menu or improvise based on the customer’s preferences. Though the drinks are pricey, they are high quality and worth the ambiance of a secret nightcap spot.
Whether for dining or drinks, the Village Yokocho deserves not just a trip, but repeated visits in any New Yorker’s dining rotation.
8 Stuyvesant St.
New York, NY 10003